Senate committee votes for state control over local law enforcement budgets; grills treasurer’s office about COVID-19 grants

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A Louisiana Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a House-passed measure that would allow state officials to punish local governments for slashing funding for law enforcement.

In its original version, House Bill 38 would have required parishes or municipalities to justify a cut of 10 percent or more to the Legislature’s joint budget committee and risk losing construction dollars and sales tax dedications for the next fiscal year. The Senate Finance Committee, after delaying action on the bill in a previous meeting, amended it to raise the threshold to 25 percent.

Rep. Lance Harris, the bill’s Republican sponsor and a candidate for Congress, said he didn’t know of any local governments in Louisiana that were cutting law enforcement spending. But he said he feared some local officials might be tempted to follow the lead of a handful of cities around the country and “defund” police departments by a significant amount.

Harris said competent local law enforcement also is important for visitors and business owners who live outside of a given tax jurisdiction, so it’s not only an issue for local taxpayers. The state already subsidizes local law enforcement salaries and pays for local construction projects, so state officials should have a say in how local governments protect public safety, Republicans argued.

But Democrats argued local officials who are directly accountable to local voters and taxpayers should manage local budgets, not state officials. Sen. Gerald Boudreaux said the bill conflicts with home rule charters local governments have adopted.

Karen White, executive counsel with the Louisiana Municipal Association, said local governments already have a disincentive to cut law enforcement funding, because laying off officers requires picking up their share of the unfunded cost to the state retirement system. And several critics wondered about the unintended consequences of trying to fix a supposed problem that doesn’t seem to exist in Louisiana.

“In this bill, the legislature is inserting itself into local politics,” White said. “Where do we draw the line?”

The committee voted 5-4 along party lines to send HB 38 to the full Senate.

Also on Wednesday, Senate Finance heard an update from the state treasurer’s office about the $275 million Louisiana Main Street Recovery Program, which distributes grants to small businesses to pay for COVID-19-related expenses. Finance Chairman Bodi White said he is getting “a lot of heat” from lawmakers hoping to dedicate leftover money to bar owners who were forced to close during the pandemic, to the Oilfield Site Restoration Fund, or to shoring up the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, among other purposes.

Officials running the program said about $111 million remains to be spent but that they expect pending applications to use up all of the money by the end of November.

“I’m holding a bunch of House bills, and they think y’all are lying that you have this money obligated,” Bodi White said. “We’re going to put that money in that funds bill [for other purposes] at the end of November or first of December, so y’all better get it out.”